Dummy pronouns are words that function grammatically as pronouns, but which do not have antecedents like normal pronouns do. This means that, unlike normal pronouns, dummy pronouns do not replace a noun, phrase, or clause. They refer to nothing in particular, but instead help the sentence to function properly in a grammatical context. Dummy pronouns are also commonly referred to as expletive pronouns.
There are two dummy pronouns, there and it.
There as a dummy pronoun
There is primarily used as a dummy pronoun in circumstances where the sentence is explaining that a person, place, or thing exists. When the word there is being used in this manner, it is often referred to as existential there. For example, the following sentences contain the dummy pronoun there to explain the existence of people, places, or things:
- “There is a ship in the harbor.”
- “There is a bowl on the table.”
- “There were flowers in the meadow.”
- “There is a river that passes through the mountain.”
- “There are many reasons to go to Jamaica.”
Singular vs. Plural use of there
The dummy pronoun there can be used in either a singular or plural context. When it is used in a singular context, the correlating nouns and verbs have singular endings; when it is used in a plural context, the corresponding nouns and verbs have plural endings.
- “There is a fence around the yard.”
In this case, the existence of only one thing, a fence, is being discussed. Therefore, the singular verb is and the singular noun fence are used. Here is another example of there being used in a singular context:
- “There is a canoe on the lake.
Again, the existence of only one canoe is being discussed, so the singular verb is and the singular noun canoe are used.
- “There are two fences around the yard.”
This sentence discusses the existence of two fences, and thus the plural form is used. This is demonstrated by the use of the plural verb are and the plural noun fences. Here is another example:
- “There are many canoes on the lake.”
This sentence discusses the existence of two or more canoes. Because of this fact, the plural verb are and the plural noun canoes are used.
Difference from adverbial there
Although the word there can be used as a dummy pronoun, it can also be used as an adverb; it is important to know the difference between the two.
When there is being used as an adverb, it is taking the place of an adverbial phrase, oftentimes an adverbial prepositional phrase. For example, consider the following sentences:
- “They swam in the water.”
- “They swam there.”
- “I’m going to hide the cookies up above the fridge.”
- “I’m going to hide the cookies up there.”
In these cases, the word there acts as an adverbial that gives further information about where the action takes place. But, if the word there were used differently in a similar sentence, it could function as a dummy pronoun. For example:
- “There were fish where they swam.”
- “There are cookies up above the fridge.”
Both of these sentences use the existential there to explain that certain things—namely, the fish and the cookies—exist. There also does not have any antecedents in these sentences, so it is clearly functioning as a dummy pronoun in both.
It as a dummy pronoun
Just like the dummy pronoun there, it is also used as a pronoun without an antecedent in sentences. It is commonly used in situations when weather, distance, or time is being discussed.
The following are examples of sentences that use it as a dummy pronoun related to weather.
- “It looks like it may snow tonight.”
- “Is it raining?”
- “It was very sunny at the beach last weekend.”
- “It always seems to sleet when he drives on the highway.”
The following examples use it as a dummy pronoun in sentences involving distance.
- “It is very far from North America to Europe.”
- “Is it a long drive to get to the mountain?”
- “It is a short walk once you get out of the forest.”
- “It is farther than you think to drive to California.”
The following examples use it as a dummy pronoun in sentences involving time.
- “It is 4:30.
- “It was earlier than he expected.”
- “Could you tell me what time it is?”
- “She told him to come back when It was later in the day.”
There are a number of other situations where it can be used as a dummy pronoun, without pertaining to weather, distance, or time.
When it functions as an empty subject to introduce or “anticipate” something that appears later in the sentence, it is sometimes referred to as anticipatory it. For example:
- “It was assumed that the tour guide knew exactly how to get there.”
- “It seems that four people showed up instead of the expected two.”
It can also function as an object when it is a dummy pronoun:
- “The teacher seemed a bit out of it yesterday.
- “Watch it, pal!”
Singular vs. Plural
Notice that in all of the examples above, it is only functioning as a singular dummy pronoun. This is because it can’t be plural. This means that the verbs and objects in sentences with the dummy pronoun it have to be singular as well.
Subject vs. object
The dummy pronoun it can either function as the subject of a sentence or as the object, although it is more commonly used as the subject. Existential there, on the other hand, can only be a subject.
(The word there can function as the object of a preposition, as in “We left from there.” However, it is considered a noun in this case, not a pronoun.)
Here are some examples of sentences where dummy pronouns are used as subjects:
- “There are many ducks in the pond.”
- “There is a tree in the middle of the field.”
- “It is 12:30.”
- “It is sunny outside today.”
Here are some examples of sentences where dummy pronouns are used as objects:
- “Will he make it to the game?”
- “You have to cool it down.”
- “Watch it!”